Q&A with award-winning Canadian scientist about women in research

·National Affairs Contributor

[McGill University]

So abysmal are the numbers of women in science that a couple of months ago the United Nations voted to give them their own day.

The first International Day of Women and Girls in Science went fairly unnoticed on Feb. 11.

Earlier this week, the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) of Canada awarded its highest science award to a woman for the first time ever.

Yet 11 of 15 of the academic awards handed out went to men and Statistics Canada says young women who go to university are less likely than young men to choose science, technology, engineering, mathematics (STEM) or computer science. While they accounted for 66 per cent of university graduates overall, they represented just 39 per cent of all STEM grads.

It’s worse elsewhere. One recent UN study of 14 countries found that just 18 per cent of undergraduates in science-related fields were women. That dropped to eight per cent of master’s graduates and six per cent of doctoral grads.

Yahoo Canada News spoke to Elena Bennett, an associate professor at McGill University’s Department of Natural Resource Sciences and School of Environment and one of the winners of NSERC’s E.W.R. Steacie Memorial Fellowships this week, about her research and life in a lab coat.

[Prime Minister’s Office/Adam Scotti]

Tell me about your research.

I work with communities on what essentially amounts to land-use planning for multiple benefits. We talk about it in terms of “ecosystem services,” which are the benefits that people get from nature. What we do is try to help communities understand the ecosystem system outcomes of different decisions that they might make. So, if they’re thinking about, say, restoring or connecting a set of forests, we can use our model to help them understand what is going to be the impact on agricultural production, recreation and carbon storage, which is important for regulating climate, or water quality or flood control — basically just to put more information on the table for communities who are making those kinds of decisions.

Why is that important?

Sometimes communities find that they’re either making decisions reactively: a developer comes and says, “Can I put my mall here?” and the community is really only able to say yes or no. So they’re in this reactive mode all the time rather than being proactive.

And part of it is about putting all of these benefits that are provided by nature on the table.

It’s really about making sure that communities are thinking about all those other things the landscape is doing and then providing them some information that helps them assess because they may not even know.

Obviously, if you cut down a forest, the forest isn’t there anymore but if you’re trying to decide between protecting this forest or that forest, it could be hard to know which one is better from a number of different vantage points.

What are your plans for the $250,000 that accompanies an E.W.R. Steacie Memorial Fellowship?

There are two scientific things that I propose doing: one is to spread this work to other communities. We’ve piloted it in communities around Quebec and Montreal and what we’re hoping to do next is to try doing this work in some other communities.

The other thing we want to do is go global. Can we use other techniques to measure ecosystem services on a global scale and connect those back to human well-being? Can we understand the impacts of service provision on human health or on national security or other things?

What is your assessment of where women are at in science?

It could be better. I think things are improving but we still see many women in STEM fields in undergraduate [school] and fewer and fewer as you move into more advanced and later career stages. You might see 10 or 20 per cent — maybe a little bit more depending on the department and the exact nature of the field — as professors in departments. I think that’s not ideal. It’s not ideal for women but I think it’s also not ideal for science.

Dr. Mario Pinto [president of NSERC] said something in his speech about how important diversity is in science because it gives us vantage points from which to see the same problem and that undoubtedly improves our science.

I think that’s true for women in science and it’s true for all kinds of minorities in science. I think we could do better.

Why do you think there are fewer women in advanced science education and advanced science careers?

There are a number of reasons for that. One is that many women don’t see very many mentors or the mentors that they do see, it doesn’t seem like a feasible lifestyle for them. I think one thing, for sure, is just showing women that there are women out there who are doing this. That it is feasible and, not just feasible, but fun and flexible and free and what an amazing job this is.

So part of it is getting mentors and role models.

And part of it is certainly removing some of the unconscious biases that we carry around, that even women carry around with us about assessing the quality of science and scientists. We just tend to assess the quality of women often lower, for some innate bias that we’re all carrying around with us. And I want to be clear that it’s not just men who are doing that. Women seem to be just as much at fault for that.

And there are a number of other issues. Many women find themselves harassed or put down or told uncomfortable things. If you’re told you don’t really belong here and you don’t see anyone else who looks like you here, and it seems like a lot of hard work, then a lot of people say there are other things I could be doing with my time where people will appreciate me and value me for what I am and what I can do. Those things lead a lot of women to drop out as they move along.

You have a family. How do you find balance?

It takes a lot of work. It takes a lot of communication with my husband, who is also a scientist, about who’s going home when and who’s doing what and how is this going to get done. And also a lot of negotiating about what gets done, so maybe the house isn’t quite as clean as I would like it be and those things.

But I think it’s really possible. It’s not that it’s easy but I think that the academic life is a very flexible life.

There was a controversy last year over comments Nobel laureate Tim Hunt made about “girls” crying in the lab. What was your reaction when you heard that?

I have, over the course of my career, had people say things to me that were similar and it made me feel uncomfortable and I think, given that we already suffer from not having as many mentors as we want or as many images of women as we want, I think those comments hurt a lot more. If you had mentors then it would be easier to brush off those comments and say that person doesn’t know what they’re talking about.

What is your advice to young women and girls who are interested in science?

Keep going. Surround yourself with people who are positive and who are supporting you. I had huge luck with that throughout my career, having amazing and, as it turns out, mostly male mentors who have been just hugely supportive.

Keep going. Don’t let anyone talk you out of it. You belong there just as much as anyone else.

What’s next for you?

One of the things the award affords us is time to take a little break from some of the teaching we do and some of the administration and service that we do in order to focus on research.

I’ll do two things. One is the research I talked about earlier and, in part driven by my own interest but also by some of the media that’s cropped up, I’d like to find some ways to do a little more leadership training and mentoring of some of the women that I see around in undergrad or graduate school who are really talented, who may not be getting the opportunities.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

Our goal is to create a safe and engaging place for users to connect over interests and passions. In order to improve our community experience, we are temporarily suspending article commenting